State of emergency declared in Silver fire

A DC-10 drops fire retardant ahead of the fire line on the mountains and ridges above Snow Creek Village near Cabazon as the Silver fire burns on in Riverside County.
(Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times)

BANNING — As the Silver fire continued to spread Friday in Riverside County, crews battled flames on the ground and from the sky, and weary residents who lost their homes struggled with the question of whether to rebuild.

Burning about 90 miles east of Los Angeles in the San Jacinto Mountains, the Silver fire has blackened about 17,500 acres and destroyed 26 homes. Six people have been injured — a firefighter and five civilians. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the county late Friday.


Authorities said the fire, burning in dry, rugged hills and canyons south of Banning, was about 25% contained. More than 1,600 firefighters are battling the blaze, focusing their attention on its eastern edge as it burns toward Palm Springs and deeper into the San Bernardino National Forest.

Firefighters used retardant-dropping planes to quell the blaze, which started Wednesday afternoon. The cause is under investigation.

The day brought a “significant decrease in fire activity,” but officials remained cautious of fast-changing weather patterns that could push the fire south into thick forest land, said Eric Solomon of the U.S. Forest Service, a spokesman for agencies handling the fire.

Firefighters will have to contend with a warming trend beginning Saturday, continued low humidity and a decrease in winds out of the west that could prove problematic, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brandt Maxwell.

That decrease could allow the fire to begin burning up the north slope of the San Jacinto Mountains toward the forest.

“It’s a possibility but not necessarily a certainty,” Maxwell said.

In one hopeful sign, most of the 1,000 or so residents who were evacuated were allowed to return to their homes Friday night.

Martha Schenk and her husband arrived at the command post early in the day, hoping to get behind fire lines and survey the destruction around their Twin Pines home, which had burned down two days earlier. Her husband, who did not want his name used, was determined to rebuild, but Schenk said she wasn’t so sure.

“We’ve [evacuated] so many times,” she said. “I don’t know if I want to do it again.”

She and her family loved their home of nearly 20 years. The open space, stunning quiet and brilliant stars were all perks of their semirural life.

But there are rattlesnakes — her daughter was bitten once — and coyotes, which have claimed 10 of their cats. Fire threats are a constant worry.

“It’s a commitment to live here,” said Schenk, who with her husband were wearing the same clothes as the previous day.

The couple had experienced the Esperanza fire in 2006, the flames marching up to their front door. The Silver fire spread much faster, and there was less warning.

“There is no guarantee you’ll get out safe, and for some reason I didn’t know that until this time,” Schenk said.

Keith Jackson, 53, said that as he watched the flames advance toward his home in Snow Creek Village, his instincts told him to stay.

“Definitely we were concerned when the big plumes of smoke were coming up over the first canyon,” said Jackson, who has lived in the community for 29 years. “That’s make or break time.”

For the next several hours, Jackson and his friend joined firefighters to clear brush off his one-acre property. The flames never came.

A firetruck was stationed outside his home Friday, just in case. Jackson, meanwhile, continued with the work in the backyard.

“Some people may say it wasn’t the right choice,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s my home.”

Late Thursday, Andrew Schrader recalled his perilous encounter with an out-of-control wildfire.

Schrader and his wife were besieged at their Twin Pines home by fire that consumed the motor home in the driveway, singed the fruit trees in the garden and was bearing down relentlessly on their house Wednesday night when, almost miraculously, it blew past.

They had fought back with water hoses and survived, but at midnight, when Schrader finally got to bed, he was transfixed by a sea of embers.

“When the wind came up, it was all glowing in the dark,” he recalled late Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Sharp fire in the Angeles National Forest near Wrightwood had covered 100 acres of steep, often inaccessible terrain, with about 380 firefighters making headway as the fire line moved away from the town.

And in Santa Clarita, the Bee fire broke out late Friday afternoon and quickly burned 80 acres east of Castaic Lake, destroying at least one structure and threatening others.

Mai-Duc reported from Banning, Rivera and Serna from Los Angeles.